United Airlines has made a multimillion dollar investment into a technology company that is hoping to turn algae into jet fuel.
United announced the $5 million investment in the biofuel company Viridos on Monday. Viridos specializes in bioengineering microalgae into algae oil, which could one day be scaled to produce sustainable aviation fuel, aka SAF.
The airline has made an ambitious goal of being a 100% green company by 2050 and has started a venture fund to identify and invest in technology that will help the company achieve that goal.
SAF is made from used cooking oil or agricultural waste, but scientists hope it can eventually be made from things like household trash, forest waste or, in the case of Viridos, algae.
Viridos identifies itself as a leader in bioengineering microalgae and says its algae have already achieved seven times the oil productivity compared to wild algae. With those scientific advancements comes the potential to create a more effective and sustainable algae oil that could one day be turned into SAF, the company says.
“Based on current estimates, SAF created by Viridos’ algae oil is expected to have a 70% reduced carbon footprint on a lifecycle basis when compared to traditional jet fuel,” United said in a news release.
Viridos and United say algae is an abundant resource that can be grown and harvested without impacting the food supply chain. As the airline looks to reduce its carbon footprint from flying, it says the biggest hurdle it faces is a shortage of feedstock needed to produce SAF, and the answer to that problem might just be from the sea.
“Viridos’ algae-based biofuel technology has the potential to help solve our supply problem without the need for farmland or other agricultural resources and marks our inaugural investment in our new cross-industry UAV Sustainable Flight Fund,” said United Airlines Ventures President Mike Leskinen.
The recent investment in Viridos is the first to be made by the UAV fund, which started with $100 million in capital thanks to United and its partners, including Air Canada, Boeing and GE Aerospace. Travelers have also paid into the fund when purchasing tickets, the airline said.
Oliver Fetzer, CEO of Viridos, said creating production sites to grow the company’s microalgae in saltwater will help create “the foundation for a biofuel future that moves away from fossil fuels without competing for precious resources such as fresh water and arable land.”
“We are excited to have the support from United Airlines,” Fetzer said. “Together we can build the ecosystem needed to bring algae biofuels to the market.”
SAF must be blended with conventional jet fuel to meet regulatory requirements for use in aircraft, United said, and the United States military plans to use jet fuel with at least 10% SAF by 2028.
United says the Biden administration’s 2022 Inflation Reduction Act includes a tax credit specifically for SAF, which it believes will encourage the production of improved SAF infrastructure and reduce prices of the fuel source.
But as with all groundbreaking advancements in fuel technology, only time will tell if algae oil is a viable fuel source. But perhaps one day the sea-to-sky pipeline will unlock a new future of aviation travel and sustainable fuel. United sure hopes so.